The ongoing monsoon session of Parliament, which started on September 14 and will continue till October 1, will consider 46 bills, according to the government’s announcements. Of these, 17 bills were introduced in the pre-pandemic session, and now they are up for consideration and passing; six bills will be withdrawn; and 23 new bills will be introduced, considered and passed. This sounds like a lot of work, specially because the session is truncated, with Lok Sabha meeting only in afternoons, Rajya Sabha in forenoons, and all the other safety precautions in place. The Modi Government has already scrapped the Question Hour, which was an opportunity for members to ask questions of the government. Only written questions are permitted, which have to be submitted beforehand.
In the two days that have gone by, things seem to be moving along smoothly for the government. It has successfully avoided getting into the two most important issues that the people are confronting: the pandemic and the economic situation.
Pandemic and Economic Distress
Health Minister Harsh Vardhan made a statement on the pandemic at the outset. Predictably, he claimed that the government’s policy of lockdown and other measures had cut down infections and deaths drastically, with no evidence of how he arrived at these numbers. Considering that the session is taking place when the COVID-19 pandemic has already infected over 50 lakh Indians and caused the death of over 80,000, the statement was shockingly blasé and insufficient.
Answers to a raft of written questions repeated these half truths and dodgy numbers. On the dramatic and distressing reverse migration of lakhs of migrant workers from cities to villages, the government claimed that one crore such migrants had fled home only because of “fake news” about the duration of the lockdown and “panic” about essential supplies. But it was also asserted that the government had released over Rs 11,000 crore funds for the State Disaster Refief Fund, which the states could use for helping the desperate migrants. These are clear deceptions because PM Modi himself announced on March 24 that the lockdown would be for three weeks – migrants started rushing back home since the very next day, and then there was a surge again three weeks later.
Also watch: The Unemployment Masked by Employment Figures
Another sleight of hand was quoting a 2018-19 report to say that unemployment was 5.5% in the country and there were no fresh figures, in response to a question on how many people lost their jobs. CMIE has noted that jobless rate had shot up to about 24% in April, which means that about 12 crore persons lost their jobs.
That’s all as far as the pandemic and economy are concerned. There is nothing new here: Parliament, guided by the government, often ignores real issues of the people and deals with them in this dismissive cavalier manner. But that’s not all there is in this session.
Toxic Laws on the Table
Of the 40 bills that are up for consideration and passing (becoming laws), several are such that will decisively and forever change the face of agriculture and industry in India. Needless to say, these changes will be in favour of the private sector (both Indian and foreign), especially the big corporate sections, and the big landowners. These bills include:
Labour Codes: Three of these codes are up for getting passed. They are The Code on Social Security, 2019; The Industrial Relations Code Bill, 2019; and The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2019. Between them they will subsume 44 existing labour laws. They will pave the way for increased working hours, arbitrary wage fixation, short term contractual work, less facilities and benefits, uncertain social security, and leave the governments with wholsale powers to change any of the stipulations and conditions in these laws.
In short, they will open the flood gates for a “hire and fire” regime in employment leaving workers and employees at the mercy of employers and governments. Coming as it does at a time when unemployment is high, economy is practically in recession and buying power in the hands of people is at the lowest, these laws are a slap in the face of working people across the country. They are also an unhinged recipe for economic disaster because unless people earn sufficiently, the economy is never going to revive.
Agriculture Related Laws: Three ordinances passed earlier in the year are now sought to be replaced by full fledged laws through three bills: The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020; The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020; and The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Prices Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020. These laws will deregulate production, supply, distribution, trade, and commerce in certain agri-commodities, thus allowing big traders and companies to buy up the produce, stock it as they want and sell it at prices they think fit. It will mean an end to government-controlled purchase of important produce like food grain. In the long run it will finish of the price support given to farmers as well as subsidies given for supply of cheap food grain to people. It will drastically change the agrarian sector into a corporate controlled, profit-driven sector with scant concern either for farmers or for consumers.
Concessions to Corporates: If these two sets of laws likely to be passed in this session are not enough to show how much the Modi government is aligned with corporate interests, have a look at The Companies (Amendment) Bill, 2020, which removes penalties and imprisonment options for violations of the law that covers companies. Even fines are reduced – the “wealth-creators” need help, not workers and farmers!
A slew of other laws that change various provisions of taxes and insolvency/bankruptcy provisions in existing laws to give concessions to corporates are also on the table in this session, all in the name of helping companies during this COVID-19 effected economic crisis.
Also read: Modi Govt’s Bizarre Economic Policy: Borrow More But Spend Less!
In addition, the state Minister for Finance Anurag Thakur (who acquired infamy for his provocative slogans in the Delhi Assembly election campaign) informed the House that 20 public sector enterprises are in the process of strategic disinvestment, that is, being sold off to private entities, while six others are facing closure or litigation. This is more gifts to corporates, snatching away livelihoods from working people.
Unfortunately, the people gave a large majority to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2019 general elections. Of course, at that time they didn’t know that this government would turn into this monster that will gobble up not only national wealth and resources but also sacrifice so many jobs. Be that as it may, the fact is that with its brute majority, the BJP and its allies will get all these anti-people laws passed in Parliament. The Opposition will put up some token fight in some cases, in others it won’t even do that. There are some murmurings in the NDA camp – the Akali Dal opposed the three agrarian laws, looking out for its largely agrarian base in Punjab. But this apart, the Opposition’s clout is severely diminished. The absence of a large Left bloc in Parliament is being felt strongly even by Opposition parties.
However, outside Parliament, the Left has led sweeping and very large struggles involving lakhs of workers, farmers, agricultural labourers and employees against these proposed laws. If not in Parliament, the fight looks likely to continue outside it – on the streets.
Also read: District, Block-Level Worker-Peasant Protests Against Modi Govt’s Policies